Kawhi Leonard’s quiet, methodical rise to NBA superstar
SAN ANTONIO — Overtime victories on back-to-back nights in different cities left the San Antonio Spurs spent.
Fidgeting with a game book, Danny Green widened his gaze upon noticing he hadn’t played 38 minutes “in a long time.” To Green’s right, LaMarcus Aldridge slouched in his locker wrapped in towels and jokingly wondered whether he’d “be able to walk” the next day.
Across the room, Kawhi Leonard stood up and pulled on a hoodie.
“It is what it is,” he said. “Everybody plays back-to-backs.”
It’s tough to complain when this is what Leonard craved all along.
From David Robinson to Tim Duncan, Duncan to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, and now on to Leonard, the Spurs continue to transition from one superstar to the next, all the while never missing a beat. San Antonio clinched its 20th consecutive postseason berth Saturday by defeating the Minnesota Timberwolves 97-90 in overtime, and they accomplished this latest milestone for the first time in 19 seasons without Duncan.
The Spurs belong to Leonard now, and he’s snatched the proverbial torch from The Big Fundamental on the way to setting the league on fire.
“They’ve been very smooth,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told ESPN.com in explaining the team’s various transitions over the years. “The fact they’ve been so smooth is just a testament to the character of the people involved. Their awareness of the situation they’re in, their ability to have gotten over themselves and know where they are at that point in their career, and to look around and be knowledgeable enough to know what the newcomer can give — well, that’s what we’ve had all the way down the line. Those guys understanding that and wanting that to happen.
“They’d rather play for 10 more years, but realize that’s not going to happen. When they see the obvious abilities of the younger guys coming along, they’ve actually helped them and created an environment where they can be successful. So, it’s really a tribute to their character and their understanding of what’s going on.”
Not prone to hyperbole, Popovich apparently knew all along what the Spurs had in Leonard. In responding to a question from a fan in a Spurs mailbag going into Leonard’s second NBA season in 2012, Popovich wrote: “I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs I think.”
That time is now.
Leonard is one of just three players in league history — Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon are the two others — to win NBA Finals MVP and NBA Defensive Player of the Year (twice). And he joined more elite company on March 1 with a 31-point night against Indiana, making the forward the fourth player in franchise history with 20 outings or more scoring 30-plus points in a single season (he now has 23 after Monday night’s heroics vs. Houston), joining George Gervin (7), David Robinson (4) and Tim Duncan (1). In the process, Leonard backed down Paul George to knock down the winning basket of a 100-99 thriller. The shot improved Leonard to 3-for-5 over the past two seasons on potential go-ahead attempts in the final 5 seconds of a game, which registers as the best percentage in the NBA on such shots (minimum five attempts) in that span.
“He is a really unique player. You don’t want to say Michael Jordan, but it’s that type of situation, where you’ve got a really, really good offensive player and a tremendous defensive player.”
Leonard relishes those opportunities.
“I work all summer and throughout the whole season to be prepared for the challenges that I have to face,” he said. “You just have to keep going. If you play bad or go 0-for-10 in the fourth, whatever, you’ve just got to keep pounding and going and going, and not give up if you want to become that guy.”
That’s one attribute Popovich loves about Leonard. The coach said very few athletes possess that mentality.
“He handles the responsibility well. Most importantly, he knows that things are not always going to be positive in the sense of win, lose, or make or miss a shot,” Popovich said. “And that’s what’s been very good about him because some people don’t understand that, and they’re afraid to have that responsibility night after night after night. You think of Kobe [Bryant], you think of LeBron [James], you think of Michael [Jordan], and you think of all these guys that had to do that. They got to the point where they realized the shot wasn’t going to go down…